Our country has been through yet another tragedy. Whether caused by an individual who is mentally ill or individuals who are trained to hate, the loss of life and maiming of innocent children, teens and adults is a trauma that many of us who are older, never had to deal with as children.
One very touching outcome is seeing the humanity in people--the bonds of caring that give birth to taking risks to help others, saving lives and celebrating life.
With this theme, I ask that you apply the theme of caring and reaching out to help others to your family situation and in particular your children.
The tribute I want to pay in this blog is to a group of high school and college students I work with in a support group. Each individual shares a common family experience: separation and/or divorce. The purpose of the group is to provide an opportunity for kids to see that they are not alone, to express feelings of loss in healthy ways, to learn positive ways to cope with change and to focus on building healthy relationships. Many of the group members are dealing with multiple losses, complex family issues that often involve mental illness, substance abuse and different degrees of conflicts between their parents. Sometimes group members report being alienated by one parent. They often feel rejected, angry, some are depressed and all struggle with accepting difficult changes, even if some are relieved that their parents aren't together.
Recently, a teen came in to group and shared a life threatening situation. It was really difficult for him to do. After the initial silent reaction, every single group member reached out to let this young man know that they cared, that he could call, text or email them. They helped him to normalize his experience by sharing similar times when they felt hopeless. While being careful to not tell their fellow group member what to do, they each shared something that might be helpful in coping with this difficult situation.
What did I observe that might be helpful to parents in building closer their relationships with their own children?
1. It takes great courage to disclose something that is life threatening and deeply personal. There needs to be a safe, caring environment that makes it "ok" to do this. Nonjudgmental parental behavior is what is needed to help kids to open up.
2. The rest of the group members were equally courageous, honest and helpful. It is, as one can imagine, very scary to face a life threatening situation that often precipitates adolescents and young adults thinking about their own vulnerability, including their own psychological well being.
3. What came out in their lengthy dialogue was disclosure of sometimes feeling desperate, sometimes worrying so much about a parent in emotional distress that it becomes too much for the adolescent. Adolescents describe feeling so angry about what happened in the family that they feel like they can't g go on.
4. The next week, when the crisis was resolved, the group participants had a chance to discuss what happened after the group ended and how they coped with the week. A number of group members reported difficult times during the week; the crisis triggered anxieties from their own families and other situations. The co facilitators used this to convey that all people experience difficult times and benefit from support, honest feedback and follow-up.
It wasn't the "answers" they needed; it was reassurance that they were cared about, that during a crisis, all could be vulnerable, all could pull together to help the person in need but even during this time, each person counted.
The tribute to these young resilient group members is something that I believe families need to do more of; something that may be difficult for parents because it is difficult for parents to hear their children's pain, particularly if the parent has been part of that pain. Parents also like to jump to problem solving rather than really understanding how their child is feeling and how their child sees life. As difficult as it was for the group, they encouraged the group member to talk, they listened, they were quiet at times, they were scared. All were alright. We as a society are always running, running to work, running to school, running to many activities. Often parents say the best time to talk to their children is driving them to an activity.
It is very difficult, when responding to someone you care about, to not "project" or put on the child what the child may have triggered in you; meaning what you experienced is how you see things and you may put that on your child. Group members had to work very hard to separate their own issues from the young man in crisis.
Teenagers and young adults are sometimes described as "selfish," non- thinking, and non-caring. This group needs to be viewed as a sample of what teens and young adults are really like. We, as parents, teachers, counselors, friends, grandparents and other extended family members must remember this and the strength, honesty and courage with which they are able to handle change. They may be older and taller but still need you on their journey to cope with life with hope. Let us remember that they can teach us, too.